Dance, Reviews, Stage

Symphony in C (Sydney Opera House)

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It must be intimidating to be plucked from the rows of the corps de ballet to create two brand new dances staged next to a defining masterpiece from the Russian–American father of 20th Century ballet. But you have to start somewhere – and ballet needs new blood.

Dancers Alice Topp and Richard House have choreographed a few works in the Australian Ballet’s developmental Bodytorque seasons, and they are also performing here in George Balanchine’s climatic Symphony in C.

The exquisite After the Rain by Christopher Wheeldon, plus two athletic if distracting, short pas de deux, make up this rather busy program (named after the Balanchine).

It begins with Richard House’s Scent of Love – and audience gasps at a resplendent rose-red cloak which seems to trail that scent across the stage. To the measured, rising piano chords of Michael Nyman, House’s declared intention is to explore through four dancers that musical patterning matched with the “unspoken emotions and spaces between our relationships”.

But just as the red cloak is too abruptly discarded, so too is House’s sometimes awkward stagecraft that is not helpful to this drama. In shadowy light, against designer Kat Chan’s huge brain-like object, Scent of Love stays within the classical ballet idiom and lacks much invention and impact.

Little Atlas, Alice Topp’s new work, has both. To a driving Ludovico Einaudi score of piano that builds to drums and strings, three dancers move through and around a huge rising and falling circle of lights (Jon Buswell).  It’s a muscular, dynamic experience, with an astonishingly elastic Vivienne Wong entwined and moved ever-fluid between the two bare-chested men (the excellent Rudy Hawkes and Kevin Jackson).

Littleweb Atlas_Kevin Jackson Vivienne Wong Rudy Hawkes_Photo Daniel Boud_229
‘Little Atlas’: Kevin Jackson, Vivienne Wong, Rudy Hawkes. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Occasionally one man steps out, but their interactions with her seem equal, with her charged voyage the sole focus. I’m less convinced by Topp’s stated desire to show past connections to place and people, to explore memories and our attempts to recreate or unmake them. But this is emotionally expressive, original choreography with an urgent energy reminiscent of William Forsythe.

The Symphony in C program also incudes two virtuosic showpieces; traditional duets with each partner competing with the other’s fluttering feet, high leaps and spins with extended leg. Short, and drained of any character, story or emotion, these old divertissements show the ballet going to the circus ring.

Historically, they were created for more specialist technical dancers than here, but still some feats drew ringside applause from this audience. The winning star, from the second pas de deux, Diana and Acteon, is undoubtedly Chengwu Gou. Short and stocky he may be, but this Beijing-born dancer leaps high as a bird and adds a masterly side kick to his super speed aerial circling.

By artful contrast, After the Rain, with its gentle orange sunset, and two dancers dressed in casual pastels, could almost be set on a quiet Australian beach. It’s actually the work of British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon who made it in 2005 on the New York City Ballet, the company long dominated by and expert in the works of Balanchine.

To the mesmerising sounds of Arvo Part, it’s a softly-paced, tantalisingly languid work for two dancers. Robyn Hendricks and guest dancer, Damien Smith, returning to Australia, are perfectly matched as equal male and female powers. Their arms undulate like wings, with movements rippling through one body and continuing through the other. As Hendricks is thrust up, a starfish to the sky, this is a homage to a moment in nature, after the rain, as it is to human feeling.

Symphony in C pretends to no meaning, character or story. Its four developing movements, with four changing sets of principals against the corps – the women in traditional white tutus, the men in black velvet – sports choreography perfectly matched to every nuance of Bizet’s Symphony in C.

This Bizet must have been a happy teenager. Composed when he was just 17, his symphony overflows with innocent exuberance and his building, repeated rhythms and harmonies are etched by Balanchine into a joyous ensemble of featherweight figures.

Under three chandeliers, against a royal blue backdrop, Balanchine may be quoting the folk and regal balletic traditions of his Russian forebears and may draw on that same superior stagecraft and architectural placement of dancers, but Symphony in C also sings with a modern vivacity. It may be meaningless – but it certainly makes you smile.

Audiences at the Paris Opera, with the Nazis just gone, must have rejoiced when George Balanchine premiered the first version there in 1947. He re-staged it a year later for the New York City Ballet.

Balanchine continued to mould the ballet around the skills of his dancers just as he did around each note of the music, and the Australian Ballet principals step skilfully into their place. In the final climatic, massed movement, with its intricately varied repetitions, they also rise to Balanchine’s showmanship. Russian-born he may be, but he certainly had a good touch of Broadway.

[box]Main image: Scent of Love. Symphony in C is at the Sydney Opera House until May 14. [/box]

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